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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

INTERESTING FOLKS: A Detailed Life, Diorama Artist Karen Kaplan Klein

Klein spends many hours in her studio working on minute details of her dioramas. Photo by C. Tamulonis, 11/2023.

Karen Kaplan Klein has energy to burn. To say that the (almost) 75 year-old is busy is an understatement. Between teaching, caring for her family and small horse farm, and occasionally travelling the world, her artwork serves as a spiritual anchor to an involved life.

“Ever since I was a child, I knew I was an artist,” she said at her home studio on Artist View Lane in Blairstown (aptly named for sure). “When I was asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ My answer was, ‘I’m already doing it. I’m an artist.’”

Growing up in Rochester, New York, her parents, Leo and Jane Kaplan, encouraged her talents. Her father Leo (1912-2012) was an assemblage artist.

“They would send me to art classes, and I was thankful for that. Because in school there either was no art program, or it was just ‘do whatever you want’ with no direction,” she recalled. “They [teachers] would just give you some paper and paints. As a teacher myself, I want to make sure my students get so much more than that. I want them to be excited about creating art.”

It was Klein’s father who got her into teaching.

“I wanted to do art for a living, but I was not drawn to the commercial side,” she said. “My father knew what it was like to struggle as an artist, and he wanted me to be secure.”

Klein wound up graduating from Long Island University, with a major in art and a minor in education. She’s been teaching for 52 years.

Currently Klein is teaching an art class at the first school she ever taught at in Byram.

“I was the art teacher from 1971 to 1978,” she said. “It’s like a dream come true to be back now, at the ending of my teaching career, to where I started as a rebellious 22 year old.”

Her instruction method is as hands on as her artwork, with the goal of teaching technique as well as having the student feel heard.

“I teach a variety of different styles for different age groups and abilities,” she said. “You really have to individualize the lessons.”

Klein’s students range in age from as young as five to as old as 95.

In addition to teaching at Byram, Klein also teaches art to trauma victims for Norwescap and at assisted living facilities like the Colonial Manor in Hackettstown.

“It’s one of my favorite teaching jobs,” she said.

Residents at Colonial Manor call her program “Sweet Jane’s” in memory of Klein’s mother. Klein also owns Art Magic and runs programs for children at her home studio throughout the year. Students experience working with a range of mediums including clay, paint and copper tooling.

Her process for her own diorama work is intricate and time consuming. She creates original and complex pen and ink drawings with a technical fountain pen. Then the images are scanned and reduced in size. After, they are printed out onto high quality art paper and meticulously cut out with a precision knife. Klein adds color and dry mounts them into place on the diorama. The labor is truly one of love, evident in many of her pieces that have tiny inch-high details and multiple layers. This is not a simple endeavor.

Klein explained the process has changed slightly over the years with technology, especially the ability to scan and reduce her drawings in her studio. There was also a time when she had to go to the library to do research.

“If I wanted to draw an elephant, I would go to the library and sit on the floor surrounded by books trying to find the right image that would inspire me,” she said.

Now with the advent of Google, she says things are a little easier to find.

Klein’s dioramas convey mysteries that the viewer can spend hours staring at trying to crack. One can see why the layers are much more than a part of a highly technical project. Each piece, no matter how large or small, incorporates themes that take the viewer down different roads. In one diorama, an old woman stares out of an intricately cut hole at a figure of a young woman in a veil. Behind the old women is a skull. So much is expressed in the piece. Is it about mortality? Colonialism? Is it humorous? Upsetting? The viewer decides.

In her small dioramas, displayed on a wall in her home, the viewer forgets they are staring into a little box and are transformed into a voyeur interrupting the private intimacy of a small world. The roughly five-by-five pieces are an illusion. The detail of her work, displayed against white backgrounds, tricks the viewer into thinking they are staring into a large space. A clown, no more than three inches high, stands at a podium giving a speech, and you are transcended to a debate hall. Alice from “Alice in Wonderland” stares woefully out of her little box at the viewer and the viewer feels that they are the ones on display. Klein successfully blurs the line between the realities of her subjects and the outside world.

Small dioramas are displayed in the artist’s home. Photo by C. Tamulonis, 11/2023.

Her career started taking off in New York City’s Greenwich Village art scene in the 1970s, where her pieces would be displayed in galleries, and she was regularly invited to shows. After she started having children, things slowed down a little. She admitted it could be difficult at times.

“I was exhausted,” she said, after the birth of her first daughter, Lindsay.

Her first husband, Steve Klein (who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 36, leaving her with two small children) would also bump heads with her on the attention she gave her art.

“It could be really hard at times,” she recalled.

Klein eventually married her current partner, Don Jacobson, and they settled in Blairstown with their blended family of five children.

After the death of her first husband, Klein said she didn’t remember doing any artwork that year. But her ability to channel her mourning into expression has grown since then. Klein’s brother, James (Jamie) Kaplan, a schoolteacher, died in 2022. The siblings were close.

“The only way I’ve been able to get through his death is through my artwork. Not only do I need it to live and breathe because I am an artist, but I need it to get through the loss. You need to have something to want to be alive for,” she said.

A piece she has recently returned to is called Roller Coaster.

“I’ve been working on it for almost 10 years,” Klein said. “It is an homage to the 40s and 50s, to our [Jamie and Klein’s] childhood. And I feel like it has been a roller coaster.”

A detail from Klein’s piece Roller Coaster that she has been working on for 10 years. Photo by C. Tamulonis, 11/2023.
Diorama pieces are cut out and colored before assemblage. Photo by C. Tamulonis, 11/2023.

Klein said she draws on lucid dreaming and her spirituality for her artwork. A prominent theme is her use of a black and white checkered floor in many of her pieces. It’s a nod to the story of King Solomon’s Temple whose checkered floor represented the good and evil in every life.

Klein’s clay dioramas (or clayaramas as she calls them) are much more whimsical. They are frequently displayed and sold at Gallery 23 on Main Street in Blairstown. Her pieces are mostly animal themed, and she is obsessed with getting the glaze (colors) right.

“The process is intense,” she said. “Between creating the clay, hollowing it, firing it into bisque, and glazing. I glaze it multiple times to get it right. So now we’re up to two to three firings. I’m also doing luster fires now for silver, gold and copper.”

Bisque firing is a very controlled process, with the clay being heated slowly and then cooled slowly so it can become porous and handle the glaze.

Klein bucks against the trope that artists are free spirited carefree creatures.

“Sure, we’re creative, but artists are obsessive,” she said. “Everything needs to be perfect.”

Klein started using clay around 15 years ago and became addicted.

“I started with a diner piece, and it went on from there,” Klein said.

A piece she did during the pandemic is called Dime Store Boogie Woogie and is on display at Gallery 23.

“It’s my largest piece, and my most serious one.”

Dime Store Boogie Woogie, at Gallery 23 in Blairstown. Photo courtesy of Karen Kaplan Klein.

Klein said she finds clay work enjoyable, and her Christmas ornaments, like The Cat’s Pajamas, have been a big hit with the public.

“Some people buy them just to put on the shelf year round,” she said.

When asked about the future, Klein said she hopes to continue concentrating on her artwork and her spirituality. She traveled to Egypt a few years ago as a scribe for a friend, the author Normandie Ellis.

“I read and write hieroglyphics,” she said. “The Egyptians were drawing their words. The one thing I always say to my students is everybody can draw; everybody can be an artist.”

This may be true, but art collectors you have been warned, a piece by Klein is one to display prominently, look at often, and wonder at the complexities of life.

You can see some of Karen Kaplan Klein’s artwork at Gallery 23 at 23 Main Street, Blairstown.

Cybele Tamulonis
Cybele Tamulonis, Contributing Writer

Cybele is a writer and editor with more than 16 years in the publishing industry. An avid reader, you can usually find her with the latest new book release from the local library. She currently resides on a farm in Hardwick with her husband and four children. In her spare time, she writes historical fiction specific to New Jersey.